Group B


Old rivalries come to the fore in this group, the least geographically diverse of the tournament.  Three of the nations share borders with one another and only a sliver of Slovenia keeping Croatia from making that fact a clean sweep.  I believe this is the weakest group in the tournament, which makes sense considering it has the weakest team in the history of the competition, the automatic qualifier in the co-hosts, Austria.  There shouldn?t be any surprises in this one. 

Germany
Odds 7/2
Germany has the best record in tournament and really are without peers.  They have taken this European trophy home to Germany on a record 3 occasions and finished second twice more.  Add to those three World Cup championships and four finishes as runners up and you have arguably the most successful footballing nation in the world.  During the stretch from ?72 to ?96 in these Euros they found themselves as far as the Semi-Finals in 6 of those 7 tournaments.  However two successive group stage exits in the last two tournaments will keep a wary fire in their bellies entering this year.  In the modern age they have possessed such a deadly combination of cool efficiency and steely ability.  They will surely be fancying their chances in 2008 as they bring a fine team and healthy, having gelled together by a challenging qualification group that they walked through with ease to become the first nation to secure their spot in the finals.   They will be taking the field without their inspirational coach, Jurgen Klinnsman, who pushed an underrated side all the way to the semifinals of the World Cup as hosts 2 years ago.  More importantly however, is that his number 2, Joachim Low, the true tactician behind their recent resurgence, is now at the helm and they have only built on their success in the last two years.  They play attractive football, as well, perhaps surprisingly even given the German stereotype.  That stereotype couldn?t be farther from the truth on the pitch as they will have players flying up the wings and will be testing keepers with rockets of shots delivered from long range, then slipping in their forwards underneath to finish chances and score goals.  They have the talent and the organization to cruise through this group and go far in this tournament, perhaps even all the way. 
Players to Watch: Michael Ballack (#13) is their captain and a force in the middle from box to box.  He stands as one of the best central midfielders in the world and has been on fine from with his club, Chelsea especially towards the end of this season.  Philipp Lahm (#16) will be tearing up the left showing his range both in pace and covering ground but also by blasting shots from the smallest of spaces and feeding good crosses into the middle.  Miroslav Klose (#11), though Polish born, will put most of the chances away.  However, the young Mario Gomez (#9) could be coming on at least as a super sub late but I think by kickoff he?ll have fought his way into the impressive starting eleven.  Gomez should have a huge tournament to match his impressive frame and wonderful skill on the ball.  Could be the young breakout player of the tournament. 

Austria
Odds 100/1
Austria are quite simply the worst team in the tournament.  Not just for this year, but for any year.  They are only here by virtue of co-hosting the event.  Of course they need not look far for inspiration, for it was only 4 years ago in the last European championship that Greece came from nowhere to beat their favored Portuguese hosts twice, the second time in the finals, to be the biggest underdog champion in the tournament?s history.  However, Greece did prove their merit through the trying qualification process while Austria?s run up to the tournament has been more of a limp.  I believe they have only one or two wins in their last 15 or so matches and those against underwhelming opposition.  At one point a few months ago a fan petition of Austrians began to try and have their team removed from the competition to save the inevitable national embarrassment.  That raises the question of whether being a host is an advantage for the Austrians.  If their play turns sour, as it likely will, it is not inconceivable that the crowd may turn sour as well and find their home stadia to be the most unfriendly of venues.  It will take a brave effort to steal a point from any of their matches for this nation, and they may find themselves begging for mercy if the Germans need a result on the final day, given their northern neighbors track record of beating the piss out of teams including a record 13-0 slaughter of San Marino in the qualifiers.
Players to Watch: Whoever is in the other jerseys running rings around the Austrians. 

Poland
Odds 40/1
Poland aren?t so much inconsistent as they rather consistently rise to the occasion of a quality opponent and lower their play accordingly in lesser challenges.  You need look no farther than the qualification for this very tournament, in which they followed up an impressive 2-1 upset of Portugal with an embarrassing 1-0 reverse to minnows Armenia.  Also they have rather in explicably qualified with regularity for the grander stage of the World Cup, while failing on every occasion to make the final rounds of this tournament, celebrating their very first occasion in this 2008 version.  Expect more of the same here, giving Austria that golden chance at a point in their second round match up.  Overall though it won?t be a long tournament for the Polish, but they could create headlines either way, with a thrilling upset over their rival Germany, or a laughable draw with Austria (I still can?t see Austria pulling one over for a win, even on the Polish).  But in my opinion, this is a team without the teeth or the stomach for this sort of thing. 
Players to Watch: Ebi Smolarek (#7) could be fitted into a variety of positions, but from wherever he lines up look for the attack to run through him.  Artur Boruc (#1) is coming off a fantastic season with Celtic and will be a real shot stopper in this tournament, and he?ll be tested as I don?t see a lot of quality in the defense in front of him. 

Croatia
Odds 12/1
Croatia is my sleeper team for this tournament. If there is one team that could come from nowhere and really surprise, this is the one.  They have already seen a giant out of the tournament as they beat England in Wembley to knock them out on the last day of qualification.  Their weakness, unfortunately, is at the back, which will likely be their ultimate undoing.  I don?t believe you can win a major tournament without a solid defense, that ability to win the inevitable 1-0 game.  But they do bring offense in bunches, even with the loss to injury of their leading scorer, Brazilain born Eduardo.  Their coach, Slaven Bilic is more than a porn star look-a-like.  He has a great mind for the game.  They will be a very dangerous teams and won?t be creating 1-0 games but pushing for goals throughout. 
Players to Watch: Luka Modric (#14) will be a star in this tournament, and make the 16 million Pounds Tottenham just paid for his services look like a bargain.  He twists and turns his way through any defense with grace and then delivers the killer pass to a teammate for the goal.  Modric will be a household name, in Europe anyway, by the end of the month.  Niko Kranjcar (#19) will hold down the center of midfield as Modric will be free to roam about the pitch where he sees his spots.  Daria Srna (#11) will be troublesome on the wing but most deadly with his ability to deliver quality set pieces. 


Group B Predictions
The big match of this group is the second round Croatia-Germany fixture.  I don?t think either will be challenged much and this will determine the group winner.  However, if this one ends in a draw, which is unlikely given both should be able to score goals in bunches, look for a German statement, and beatdown, against Austria in the final round to send them atop the group.  Germany in first, Croatia advances in second.